Negotiating A Way Out Of The Morass
NEW YORK, March 18 (UPI) — The momentum generated by Crown Prince Abdullah's peace proposal, the United Nation's resolution calling for the immediate cessation of hostilities and the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the Bush administration's renewed commitment to end the violence, coupled with the growing internal Israeli as well as Palestinian pressure on their respective authorities to halt the escalating violence, could produce a cease-fire that will subsequently lead to political negotiations.
These negotiations must first deal, however, with five Israeli and Palestinian core requirements if the cease-fire is to hold. President Bush's special envoy to the region, General Zinni, will encounter, as is expected, serious difficulties in his efforts. American insistence and our continuing pressure on both sides will be necessary for them to reach a an agreement on these core issues that will provide the basis for a permanent agreement.
Let us start with the obvious–restoring shattered mutual trust: clearly, ending, or at a minimum, substantially reducing the vicious cycle of violence is a prerequisite to restoring a semblance of trust. Confidence-building measures must follow the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Palestinian territories recently occupied by Israel, such as the removal of Israeli roadblocks to allow for the freer movement of Palestinians and the flow of goods and services to them. The Palestinian Authority must reciprocate by arresting or, at least, placing under house arrest, Hamas and Jihad militants known for their violent opposition to any agreement. And, finally, joint security teams must continue to work together under any circumstances regardless of the intensity or frequency of violence.
Second, signaling the beginning of the end of occupation: the past 18 months of terrible violence galvanized Palestinian resistence to the Israeli occupation, and ending it became the most urgent Palestinian national goal. >From the Palestinian vantage point, the settlements in the West Bank and Gaza are as much a symbol of occupation as the presence of the Israeli military. Freezing the expansion of the settlements, perhaps with the exception of the three blocks of settlements that surround Jerusalem, is essential to signal Israel's seriousness and ultimate intentions. The United States must consider the freeze on settlements expansion as a fundamental condition for building confidence in the negotiating process.
Third, ending the violence, especially within the 1967 borders: with the best of intentions and however hard the Israeli and Palestinian authorities may try to stem it, the violence will not completely end, even after a cease fire has been agreed upon and strongly supported by both sides. Palestinian and Israeli extremists not only will still have some scores to settle, they will also deliberately violate the cease-fire to undermine the peace process. Although Palestinian security forces and intelligence units must make every effort to prevent any attacks against Israeli military or civilian targets anywhere, such efforts must be redoubled to prevent attacks on Israeli targets within the 1967 borders. Their vigilance will send a clear message to the Israelis, more than at any time before, that the Palestinian struggle is, and will remain, focused on the territories and there are no designs beyond them.
Fourth, starting political talks unconditionally: once the first three requirements are met, the political negotiations can then resume. The Palestinians should have no illusions about what these will entail. No Israeli government will resume the negotiations where they were left off 18 months ago. The dynamic of the conflict has changed so much that it has left the political track largely dependent on deeds and actions on the ground. The United States must now lower Palestinian expectations in this regard, even though ultimately the agreement may very well resemble what was offered by former Prime Minister Barak.
Fifth, dealing with any eruption of violence with the utmost restraint: future negotiation may be punctuated by occasional eruptions of violence. Both sides must follow the late Prime Minister Rabin's mantra: negotiate as if there is no violence and deal with violence as if there is no negotiation. I would like to add a further caution: restraint and more restraint must be exercised in responding to any act of violence. Otherwise, the response to it will simply play into the hands of those sworn to sabotage any potential agreement.
Regardless of how gingerly and skillfully Mr. Sharon deals with the first phase of the negotiations, there is always the danger that his coalition government will unravel in the process. Any concession he makes on the settlements, or even the mention of East Jerusalem, will push his right-wing coalition partners off the edge. But if he does not heed these basic initial requirements for starting a dialogue in earnest, his coalition partners from the center and left will walk away. The collapse of the Sharon government may, nevertheless, not be such a bad thing after all. Those observers of the Israeli political scene who suggest that Sharon's departure will necessarily bring back former Prime Minister Natanyahu should not hold their breath. The Israeli public is sick and tired of inflammatory rhetoric and confrontational policies. Natanyahu has only more of the same and worse to offer.
If the Palestinians, for once, wise-up and pay close attention to Israeli politics and public sentiments, they will strengthen the hand of the vast majority of Israelis who want to live in peace by ending the senseless violence. The Israeli people will then elect a moderate leadership that can guide them to peace with security and dignity for both sides. Defense Minister Ben-Eliezer, who was recently elected the leader of his Labor party, is a strong security-minded leader with a vison for peaceful coexistence. He stands an excellent chance of winning the next election. The Palestinians need to well remember that it was their shortsighted violent policies that brought Sharon to power. And should the Sharon government fall, their conduct may very well determine who will be the next Israeli prime minister, Natanyahu or Ben-Eliezer.
Finally, for the United States, as it might have discovered already, a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become the sine qua non of the war on terrorism. Most Arab governments link their stability and security directly to the peaceful solution of the Israeli-Palestinian problem. Until that is accomplished, they have absolutely no incentive to align themselves with the United States in any attempt to remove by force Iraq's Saddam Hussein, an activity that can only further antagonize their public and undermine their own grip on power.
Now that we have plunged once again into the Israeli-Palestinian morass, we must remain relentless, committed and unwavering until a permanent solution is reached. Another failure will make the last cycle of violence look like child's play and only be to our and our allies' detriment. If such commitment is going to vindicate former President Clinton's approach, well, the Bush administration just may have to swallow it.